St. Hugh's students Mark Bailey (left) and Eusebio Maningding simulate hurricane tracking using an anemometer and wind vane they created and calibrated as part of a science project during class last week at the Greenbelt school.

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Through hands-on science programs, St. Hugh's students learn about 'worlds beyond

RICHARD SZCZEPANOWSKI
Catholic Standard staff

Students at St. Hugh School attend classes in Greenbelt, but are encouraged to study "worlds beyond" their own. Thanks to a friendly relationship with their neighbor - NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center - students at the school have studied a variety of topics from planets outside of the solar system to their own Chesapeake Bay.

"We use hands-on activities to help the students love science and not be afraid of it," said Margie Sparks, St. Hugh's sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade science teacher and social studies teacher. She has taught at the school for nearly a quarter of a century.

Right now, Sparks' students are studying "monster storms" such as hurricanes, blizzards, tornadoes, monsoons and other extreme weather.

As part of their project, St. Hugh students are simulating data collection processes that were used by meteorologists during Hurricane Ophelia. That category 3 storm slammed into the Atlantic seaboard in September 2005, registering 85-mile-per-hour winds. It caused $70 million in damage to areas of Florida, North Carolina, Massachusetts and Canada.

St. Hugh science students made their own anemometers, which measure wind speeds, and their own wind vanes, which track wind direction. With fans set up in class, they measured and calculated their own hurricane.

"This is all good science stuff," Sparks said. "It's hands on. The students created and calibrated their own instruments. They are collecting and recording data, and they will analyze their data."

Although it is situated in an historic part of Greenbelt that was built during the Roosevelt Administration, St. Hugh School offers the ambitious forward-looking science program because of its close contacts with NASA. Goddard is just a couple miles down the road from the school.

The students are learning about "monster storms" as part of their participation in the Jason Project.

Founded in 1989 by Dr. Robert D. Ballard, the oceanographer and explorer who discovered the shipwrecked Titanic, the Jason Project works with NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administra-tion (NOAA) and the National Geographic to provide students with an interactive way to study their world and other worlds.

In the 14 years that St. Hugh has participated in the project, students have studied the nature and history of Earth and Mars, disappearing wetlands, rainforests and aquatic systems. They have also studied marine biology, meteorology, climatology and sea surface temperatures.

The Jason Project is named after the hero of Greek mythology who led his argonauts on many adventures as they searched for the golden fleece.

"Jason brought the argonauts to others worlds and safely back again," Sparks said in explaining the science project's name.

Sparks, who has worked as a teacher intern at NASA during the summer, leads her students on what she calls "our own missions using NASA technology."

Being close to NASA, "we are lucky. Scientists have come to the classroom to talk to our kids," Sparks said.

As a matter of fact, next Thursday, Jan. 31, at 7 p.m., Dr. Peter Hildebrand, deputy director and chief scientist at NASA Goddard, will speak at the school and discuss climate change and global warming. That talk is open to the public.

Not only have St. Hugh students searched their own world, but have also explored "worlds beyond" their own. That is because the school participated in NASA's "Worlds Beyond" pilot program in 2006.

Through the program, students learned about planetary systems outside of our solar system, wrote about what they learned and created solar-powered globes representing those extra-solar planets. The globes are on permanent display at Goddard.

St. Hugh was one of only four schools (and the only Catholic school) selected to participate in the project.

"We combined arts as well as science as we looked at new technology to search for extra-solar plants," Sparks explained.

For Chris Trott, the second-year principal at the school, the students' participation in the Jason Project is another opportunity to teach them about God.

"When we talk about worlds beyond our own, we talk about how God created our universe, and how He gave us this gift," Trott said. "We teach the kids that God has blessed us, and we must be responsible for our actions. We teach them that God has created us, and we are here for a reason."

The school works hard to be an integral part of the parish. With 173 students in kindergarten through the eighth grade, more than 75 percent of them are Catholic.

Many of the parish's altar servers - there are five at each weekend Mass offered at St. Hugh - are students from the school.

"A good amount of kids participate [as altar servers]," Trott said. He added that students from the third grade and up are trained to serve at Mass.

He said school officials also "try to let parishioners know what is going on" at the school. Trott said that students' science and other projects are sometimes displayed in the parish hall, there is a bulletin board in the back of the church with school news posted on it, talks such as Dr. Hilde-brand's are opened to the parish at large, and there are regular updates in the parish bulletin alerting parishioners to events at the school.

Whether the students are participating in Mass or learning about monster storms, Trott said he appreciates the fact that learning is an active process at the school.

"Kids have a hands-on learning experience, they are not learning just by having their noses in a textbook," he said.

For Sparks, having the students participate in the Worlds Beyond pilot and the Jason Project helps them embrace science learning.

"I want students to ask questions - 'Why does the world work the way it does?" - and I want them to have an enthusiasm for science. I want them to see that science is not just for nerds, that they can explore the world around them and see that there are jobs and opportunities available to them," she said. "I want students to know we are blessed with what we have. God has given us this wonderful world, and we need to take care of what He created."